Corruption Halts Vietnam Adoptions by Americans

Limbo looks like this: a tidy one-room apartment decorated with baby toys and just enough space for a crib and a twin bed.

Karla Brendler and her 16-month-old daughter Madison inhabit this space between heaven and hell and just a few steps from a street full of noisy motor scooters. They live an unexpected and indefinite existence, victims of a changing international adoption policy between the United States and Vietnam.

In the wake of allegations of corruption and baby-selling, Vietnam recently terminated its adoption agreement with the United States. The last applications must be filed by July 1 and the program will be ended on Sept. 1.

The decision could affect hundreds of American families like the Brendlers, who have already begun adoption procedures in Vietnam. So far this fiscal year, more than 400 American families have opened adoption cases there.

Evidence suggests that some babies believed to be available for adoptions were actually bought or stolen, according to the U.S. State Department. In addition, some Americans have allegedly been asked to make enormous "contributions" to orphanages or individuals to complete their adoption procedures.

For Brendler, a kindergarten teacher, her unexpected stay in Vietnam began in October when she arrived to adopt Madison and bring her home to Iowa City, Iowa. Shortly after arriving she learned that the State Department was questioning information about her daughter's history: Was she really abandoned?

In the world of international adoptions, the question of abandonment is perhaps the most significant question.

For U.S. State Department officials, the question of abandonment, or in some cases relinquishment, determines if or when they grant the child a visa to go to the United States. In some cases, they have found that mothers were coerced into relinquishing their children and concluded there was no abandonment.

"Over a period of several months, in the course of doing our normal verification operations on visa applications for adoptions, we've uncovered an awful lot of fraud," said Michael Michalak, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam. "We have worked with the government of Vietnam to fix this system, but it seems that the government of Vietnam does not have enough enforcement capability or enough legal authority to make the system work."

The State Department released a memorandum last month citing corruption in the adoption system, after which Vietnam announced that it would stop accepting adoption applications from American families.

In 2003, the U.S. suspended all adoptions from Vietnam over concerns about corruption, but a new agreement was reached between the two countries in 2006. Since that agreement took effect, more than 1,200 Vietnamese children were adopted by Americans.

There are 43 U.S. adoption agencies operating in Vietnam, all competing for the same babies.

"It's very hard for adoption agencies to work together and to stand behind ethical adoptions because there is a lot of competition," said a former program director for an American adoption agency. "Lots of families are hurting now because of a temporary shutdown, but there was a lack of understanding and it takes time to fix this. This time we need to be united and take ownership and we need to support both governments in order to make it work."

Vietnamese adoption officials admit that there may be problems, but claim that overall it is an honest system.

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